When Erie County legislator Patrick Burke found out Mike Pence was going to be Vice President, he decided to send him a message.
The burly Buffalo native had been trying to pass a law in his county that would ban conversion therapy — a widely discredited practice that claims to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. He was terrified to see that Pence, a man who'd endorsed conversion therapy, was ascending to one of the most powerful jobs in the country.
Burke decided to propose a ban on conversion therapy and name it "Prevention of Emotional Neglect and Childhood Endangerment," or PENCE, in hopes of not only protecting LGBT youth but also raising awareness of the Vice President-elect's radical views on the practice.
"Many folks are very uncomfortable with Donald Trump but a lot of people are like, 'well, at least Mike Pence is a normal guy,'" Burke told Broadly. "Thing is, he's not. We're starting to see this creeping normalization of extremism and we have to continually remind ourselves that most Americans do not think the way [Pence] thinks."
Pence's support for the "pray the gay away" pseudo-science is well-documented. On his 2000 congressional campaign website, he promised to oppose same-sex marriage and gut the anti-discrimination laws that protect gay people. He also had this to say about renewing the Ryan White Care Act, which provides federal funding for HIV / AIDS patients:
Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.
These views are somewhat in line with the GOP's current official stance, which is supportive of parents choosing conversion therapy for their children. "We support the right of parents to determine the proper treatment or therapy, for their minor children," reads an amendment submitted as part of the official 2016 GOP platform by the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins.
The resurgence of support for conversion therapy is alarming, especially considering its sordid past. It's taken many dehumanizing and degrading forms throughout the years, including: castration; electroshock therapy; masculinity or femininity "training"; and inducing nausea, vomiting or paralysis while showing gay people homoerotic imagery, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The practice has been discredited by a number of groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association. President Obama recently called it "potentially devastating."
"We should call it brainwashing, child abuse or torture. Those terms seem to be most appropriate for such a deplorable, disgusting practice," Burke said.
Pence is not the only person chosen to be part of the incoming Trump administration who has links to so-called reparative therapy. Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, has extensive ties to the Family Research Council, which the SPLC has labeled an anti-gay hate group, and which has also endorsed the practice. According to the organization's website, it would never have been able to establish its Washington office without the support of DeVos's family.
We should call it brainwashing, child abuse or torture. Those terms seem to be most appropriate for such a deplorable, disgusting practice.
Still, Burke is most worried about Pence. "What's scary about Mike Pence isn't just that he holds these views or will be vice president; it's that he probably will be the most powerful vice president in history because Donald Trump has no governmental experience or interest in governing," Burke said.
Peterson Toscano, a playwright who survived ex-gay therapy and is now outspoken against the practice, believes Pence's anti-gay views could embolden leaders who run conversion programs. That said, Toscano doesn't believe banning the practice will work. "These laws affect trained therapists who are giving secular therapy. So what happens at the alter, what happens at the counseling session, what happens at the Christian camp—that typically isn't affected by any of these laws."
For example, while California, Oregon, New Jersey, Illinois, and DC have banned the conversion therapy for minors, this hasn't stopped ex-gay groups like Living Waters from establishing member groups in those states.
"Living Waters, in particular, has been so clever about this — they've kept themselves under the radar for decades, all the while building their networks across America and the world. What they do is so, in a way, ingenious and really creepy: they focus on issues like eating disorders and overcoming sexual abuse and trauma. But, at the end of the day, they're really looking for gay people to cure. They're just not as explicit about it."
Toscano believes banning the practice will make church leaders feel like martyrs and only affirm their commitment to the practice. In order for churches to really understand the effect that conversion therapy has on LGBT people, they'll need to meet people who've suffered under its supposed care.
"I think it's a time for ex-gay survivors to step up and tell their stories again," he said.